Cursed, The (United States, 2021)

February 17, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cursed, The Poster

Despite being afflicted with some common tropes of the horror genre, Sean Ellis’ The Cursed (which had the less generic title Eight for Silver when it premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival) is imbued with its own brand of originality. Ellis’ approach to the familiar subject matter is sufficiently unconventional that the movie never feels hackneyed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “bold” or “innovative,” but there’s a freshness to the storytelling and its attendant monster movie elements.

The Cursed is a reimagination of the traditional werewolf movie, with a macabre creature that only dimly resembles a wolf (it’s referred to by one character as “a dragon”). It’s a bloody, monstrous beast with sharp fangs that tear at the flesh to maim or murder. There are gypsies and silver bullets but there’s nary a full moon to be seen. And, while the curse is passed on by the bite of an infected creature, there’s no evidence that the monster ever regains its human form except under extraordinary circumstances.

Following a prologue set in the trenches of World War I, the movie flashes back to the early 1880s. The setting is France, although everyone speaks English. A landowner, Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), authorizes the extermination of a group of gypsies camped on his land. They have a claim to the property but he rejects it in favor of using mercenaries to eliminate them in a bloody, brutal fashion. In the process, a curse is unleashed. The only son of Alistair and his wife, Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), disappears after being savaged. Other deaths, apparently caused by a wolf, occur. At that time, pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) arrives in the town with a story so incredible that no one believes him…until he provides proof. It then becomes a race against time as to whether John can end the curse before it takes the lives of Seamus, Isabelle, their daughter, Charlotte (Amelia Crouch), and anyone else who comes into contact with one of the infected creatures.

In offering a different take on the werewolf legend, Ellis relies on the superstitious nature of rural France during the late 19th century to provide the fertile soil for such bestial butchery. As such, great care is taken in world-building. The central conceit is believable because it seems possible in this primitive society. Ellis (who worked as his own cinematographer) painstakingly develops an eerie, atmospheric canvas, with mists aplenty and a nightmarish tableau that doesn’t skimp on the blood or gore. The creatures are never overexposed but we see enough of them to recognize their frightening ferocity. One recurring image – that of a human scarecrow (the mutilated body of one of the murdered gypsies) – becomes a touchstone for all the poison that has seeped into the earth.

The setting is more strongly represented that the human characters, who are largely two-dimensional. Alistair is taciturn, hard-headed, and generally unlikeable. Isabelle has no personality whatsoever – or at least none that’s effectively conveyed. An attempt is made to give John a tragic backstory to serve the dual purpose of explaining his obsession with the creature and humanizing him but, in the end, he comes across like a young Van Helsing.

As atypical a horror movie as The Cursed is, it exhibits a common failing of the genre: the tendency of seemingly rational people to execute dumb, unprovoked actions in order to propel the narrative forward. There are several examples of it throughout the movie but the most egregious occurs at the climax and, although Ellis makes a halfhearted attempt to rationalize it, the explanation is transparent. Putting that aside, however – something easily done because it’s so deeply ingrained in horror films – The Cursed does what it sets out to do. It’s not conventionally frightening nor does it offer a cavalcade of artificially crafted jump-scares, relying instead on a deeper, more primal form of terror built on a foundation of slow-burn tension and a surfeit of atmosphere. Put it alongside last year’s Lamb and this year’s (soon to come) You Won’t Be Alone as recent, unconventional horror standouts.

Cursed, The (United States, 2021)

Director: Sean Ellis
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Amelia Crouch
Screenplay: Sean Ellis
Cinematography: Sean Ellis
Music: Robin Foster
U.S. Distributor: LD Entertainment
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2022-02-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Nudity)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1